In the summer of 2009, Lee Nickell became the head coach of the UB men’s tennis team.
He immediately set a goal for himself to diversify the program.
Before his hiring, international players weren’t common. The previous coaching staff had largely targeted prospects from the U.S., resulting in an unequal balance of domestic and international student-athletes that tilted heavily in the former’s favor.
But Nickell wanted to change that. And early on, he realized he didn’t have a choice. Tennis may be the fourth-most popular sport in the world, but it does not have a heavy following in the Queen City.
“I didn’t realize at the time how hard it would be to convince these American juniors to come to Buffalo,” Nickell said. “The weather and poor results prior to my arrival made things much more difficult. Recruiting overseas helped in finding these exceptional student-athletes who could compete for titles immediately.”
Thirteen years later, Nickell’s roster is composed almost exclusively of student-athletes from across the globe, from the port city of Cape Town, South Africa to the tourist town of Eckernfoerde, Germany. Only two players — Greg Hastings, from North Tonawanda, and Jonah Murphy, from Buffalo — are from the U.S.
Nickell says this was borne of necessity, because Buffalo is such a cold, snowy city.
“We had to start looking for student-athletes from colder weather climates first because we have had a few players leave due to the weather, and most were from Southern Hemisphere countries,” Nickell said.
Men’s tennis has a smaller budget than most other programs at UB. In 2018-19, the team spent just $1,802 on recruiting — a negligible amount compared to that of football ($272,385), men’s basketball ($167,229), women’s basketball ($86,516), volleyball ($23,528) and even other non-revenue generating sports like softball and track-and-field.
In fact, the team reported smaller total operating expenses — $493,094 — than any other team at UB in 2018-19.
Because of this, Nickell and his staff don’t have the luxury of traveling to these countries to recruit their players in person; instead, they are forced to do their recruiting via phone and Zoom, even in a non-COVID-19 year.
“We want to find really communicative young men because we spend so much time together as a team,” Nickell said. “These calls are vital in determining if they’ll fit with the team. Normally, before COVID-19, we would fly a few players in to see the campus and meet the team but we were unable to this year.”
Nickell and assistant coach Tony Miller are constantly monitoring the International Tennis Federation (ITF) website for results and rankings for junior tennis stars throughout the world. When a recruit jumps off the screen, Nickell and Miller will contact the players’ coach and try to persuade the athlete to choose UB. And Nickell isn’t only looking for top talents; he’s also looking for strong students.
“We don’t take the time talking to any recruit unless we have a good grasp on their levels on the court and in the classroom,” Nickell said. “When we meet them on campus, we try to sell the academic excellence, international student support and overall diversity within the university.”
For the 2020-21 season, UB recruited two freshmen student-athletes — Finn MacNamara from Australia and Tom Owen from England — by browsing the ITF rankings. MacNamara had the opportunity to visit campus before the COVID-19 shutdown but Owen was unable to.
“Recruiting right now is extremely challenging for everyone. Luckily, since we’ve always used FaceTime, phone calls and Zoom meetings to recruit, it hasn’t changed too much for us,” Nickell said. “The lack of opportunity due to the extra year provided to 2019-20 athletes has really left a lot of great recruits without places to go.”
So much has changed in the past year, but Nickell has continued to seek out international student-athletes and get positive results. Under his leadership, the men’s tennis program has been trending in the right direction. Since the 2009-10 season, the team has a combined record of 119-91-1.
Nickell says he is proud of his team’s victories on the court, but that he has his eyes set on something bigger: what his student-athletes do after graduation.
“I have had two international students go on to become doctors who are now saving lives on the front lines,” Nickell said. “One went on to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry, one is the VP of M&T Bank, and another is the CFO of a publicly traded company. Some even teach tennis in communities throughout the states.”
“Whenever someone asks why we are international, I always want to stress how many of our international alumni have stayed and are making huge differences in the states.”
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, posting memes on Twitter, and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.